A Review of
The Joy of Foraging: Finding, Harvesting, and Enjoying a World of Wild Food
Reviewed by Mary Bowling
Gary Lincoff, who has written extensively about mushrooms, now presents a book about what to do with all kinds of other plants commonly encountered outdoors, anywhere from right outside the back door to the woods, wetlands and seashores. As a teacher of botany in New York City, he is able to forage in the city and to observe others doing the same. He has also traveled the world and is familiar with wild plants growing in many countries. He introduces several wild fruits that westerners would find bizarre, but the main focus of the book is on weeds, herbs, and fruits that can be found nearly anywhere in the world.
Not all wild food has to be hunted for and grubbed out of the ground. Lincoff defines a wild plant as one that has not been altered by cultivation, so many species that are relied upon as staple foods by some societies would be considered wild. Similarly many wild foods are readily available in stores and markets around the world, as well as online. Maple syrup, honey, many nuts, spices, and teas are good examples of wild foods most people are perfectly comfortable having around the house.
Lincoff begins his book by highlighting some of the many uses of wild plants around the world before moving on to concerns about how, when, and where to forage. There are many plants that are not included in his book. He excludes many plants with edible underground parts for the reason that these can be very easily overharvested. He also excludes plants that have poisonous or toxic lookalikes or may be easily confused with something harmful. He does include, however, poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac. Although they are not edible and don’t look too much like anything that is, it’s always a good idea to look out for them and everyone who ventures outdoors should be able to recognize them. He also notes that only certain parts of plants may be edible, and at certain times of year. Berries and fruits are an obvious example, but most of the plants have specific guidelines for what part to use and when.
There is a lot to know about foraging and a long, long list of plants, which each have specific uses. The task of learning this skill seems daunting, but “The Joy of Foraging” does cater to the beginner. Lincoff advises before actually foraging, to visit farmers markets and specialty and ethnic stores to get a taste for what some of these foods have to offer, and to see some of the plants’ domestic relatives sitting non-threateningly on the shelves. He then locates some places where taking a walk would present an abundance of wild edibles, starting with the close-to-home and venturing out farther and farther. He then spends one chapter helping the reader understand some basic ideas about plant biology. Taxonomy for identification, how different plants grow, plant families and naming methods are broached at an introductory level.
The bulk of the book is an index of the various edible plants commonly found and used by foragers. They are grouped by kind; nuts, then fruits, then greens, then the poison ivy group. Each entry has at least one large color photo, and especially in the section related to greens, more and bigger photos are better. Many of the pictures illustrate only the edible parts of the plants while some show the plant in such a way as to make identification easier. Since some of the plants only have edible parts for a short time or only when they are very small and sometimes hard to identify, Lincoff advises identifying plants at various times of year and then returning to them once the time is right for harvesting. Each entry also contains a short paragraph with some interesting facts, whether some bit of history or helpful identification information. The scientific name is listed, as well as one or more common names, the plant family, a description of what to look for when identifying the plant, when is the best time to identify or to consume the plant, look-alikes, where to find the plant, uses, collection methods, and commercial availability. Each of these headings will likely have a phrase, or as much as a couple sentences for explanation, so the information on each plant isn’t overwhelming.
A small section containing recipes is at the back of the book. As with the other parts of the book, the recipes are basic and many can be modified easily to include different plants or ingredients or to make them more or less “wild”. For example, a salad can be made by adding a few violet flowers to a bowl of otherwise supermarket-variety lettuce and fixings. Or a salad can be made of entirely foraged ingredients. Lincoff realizes that people’s tastes are different and that some wild foods can be quite a departure from the norm for most people. Others, however, can be substituted for conventional ingredients without anyone being aware. The recipe section is not exhaustive, but the readers are encouraged to experiment with the plants listed in the book to see what is usable and palatable for themselves.
This is certainly not something that can be accomplished all at once. Foraging is a real skill that utilizes real knowledge. Besides the knowledge of physical characteristics of plants and their uses, a forager must also cultivate patience, an eye for detail, and openness to new tastes. In a society where people increasingly do not know how to cook with basic ingredients, let alone where those ingredients come from and how they grow, the fact that there are those who still know how to find and use wild plants says that maybe not everyone is willing to forfeit knowledge and capability for the convenience found in pre-prepared supermarket commodities. Gary Lincoff’s book provides a good jumping-off place for those who would like to foster an appreciation for the mostly unlooked-for abundance that surrounds people wherever they are, and an ability to find hidden sustenance in everyday places.